My primary cameras are a pair of fraternal twins: A Nikon D800, and a Nikon D800E. I don’t know that I can actually tell the difference between the two, though allegedly the D800E is a little sharper than the D800 (but that’s hard to imagine). If you’re prepared to deal with the enormous file size (invest in lots of SD/CF cards, and lots of external hard drive space), the D800s are amazing. With 36 mega-pixels and a sensor with 16 stops of dynamic range, it salvages shots and situations you wouldn’t think possible. Why two nearly-identical cameras? When things are moving fast, I hate having to stop and change lenses. Instead, I just carry two cameras (each with a different lens) so I can immediately switch back and forth. I tried it with two non-identical cameras, but quickly realized I wasn’t smart enough to remember — on the fly — how to operate two different sets of buttons and controls. Thus the twins.
I have a D750. It’s also great. Key advantages vs. the D800s: A little smaller; faster firing rate (for action, etc.); arguably better (?) high-ISO capability; and the pull-out rear screen (which makes it easy to shoot when the camera is held overhead or on the ground. The smaller file size has its pros and cons.
My spare/backup camera is a D7000; it’s great, too. If you’re not a photography lunatic, cameras like the D7000/7100/7200, D600/610, or D750 are just as good as the D800 in 98% of uses. Even the D5300 or D3300 are great (much cheaper cameras) for 90% of uses, though the lenses that usually come with them (in the “kit”) aren’t as good as the cameras themselves.
Over the past 40 years, Nikon and Canon have often been neck and neck (or back and forth). Right now (the 2014-15ish time frame), Nikon is ahead in high-end DSLRs — especially so in the dynamic range and image quality areas. Canons still might be best if you mostly shoot stuff that moves fast (like sports). Note: Nikon’s cheaper point-and-shoots aren’t as good as the competition — this advice covers only DSLRs.
I use autofocus 99% of the time (unless e.g., it’s too dark to focus). It is better at this than I am, though “we” do have to practice. It’s usually in single spot (locking on) mode, unless things start moving very fast. For people up close, put the spot on the subject’s eyeball (the eye closest to you, if their head is turned). If you’re not quite up to that, the full “auto” on the new Nikons is surprisingly good.
I use aperture priority auto-exposure 95% of the time. Again: It is better at this than I am. I leave the metering mode set for the broader (non-spot) settings. I usually tweak exposure with exposure compensation rather than switching to manual. I always shoot in RAW format. I do not hesitate to crank the D800’s ISO when it gets a little dark (grainy is way better than blurry, and when it’s dark anyway you needn’t worry about beautiful, “true” colors). I rarely use a tripod (because I hate it and because the restricted movement tends to prevent me from getting the camera into position to take the kind of images I like). The VR image stabilization feature that’s on many (but not all!) Nikon zoom lenses (“IS” on Canons) is my dearest friend.
I tend to get VERY close to people and subjects when I can — I don’t like “shooting” people with long lenses like you’d shoot tigers on a photo safari — so I lean toward wider-angle lenses. Some of my favorite portraits were made with a 16-35mm lens at a distance of about one foot. This often requires meeting those people, shaking their hands, being nice to them and maybe even learning their names — all of which can have other wonderful side effects. I move around when taking pictures. I climb stuff; I squat; I squeeze into corners and lean over rails. The location of the camera is as important as where the camera is pointed. (I feel like I should repeat that last sentence two or three times). Small differences and movements matter a lot, especially if you’re using a wide lens or lining up multiple elements. I try desperately to always look at the entire image in the frame to avoid ugly stuff and add interesting stuff. More advice along these lines: Move around to try to be sure the subject stands out (“separation” via lighting or color difference) from the background. Move around to line up elements in interesting and balanced ways and to include more than one interesting thing in your picture. Move around to get interesting angles and perspectives. Move around. Think about your background: Sometimes you just want to be sure it doesn’t distract, but sometimes you want that “background” to be just as interesting as the subject itself, or to tell another bit of the story. Maybe even better: don’t think of anything as a background. Instead, just think of it as another element of the image whose location, lighting, focus, etc. you manage just like the main “subject” and other elements.
The old saying, “If your images aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is great advice for relative beginners. You probably don’t want to see lots of the floor or the sky in your images. Move closer to your subjects, or have them come closer to you.
When in doubt, I use a more open aperture (both to reduce depth of field and blur the backgrounds, and to get me faster shutter speeds). The resulting look is often very pretty and it’s something your iPhone cannot replicate. I take a LOT of pictures: when there is movement or people, this allows options of a perfect gesture, position or expression; when there is no movement, I have the luxury of bracketing. Lightroom (see below) makes it easy to edit.
Adobe Lightroom 5.0 may be the greatest, most indispensable tool I use. It’s the software program that lets me organize, review and edit my pictures. 99% of the time, its editing capabilities make the more-expensive, more-cumbersome, more-complex Photoshop unnecessary. Lightroom now even does HDR and panorama merges, which makes Photoshop even less useful to me.
I absolutely swear by Lightroom — it’s a fraction the cost of Photoshop, but for actual photographers it is far more useful 99% the time. (NOTE: Recently you may have to buy the package of both of them together anyway, so this is advice about what to USE; not what to BUY). If you’re trying to get by with Photoshop or with Apple’s version of all this, you’re missing out. Nikon has a similar program, too (Capture), which has some advantages for a Nikon shooter, but hardly anybody uses it regularly.
I do use Photoshop. It’s mostly for extreme things like major “cloning” (magically putting myself into a picture, for example!) or something like that. I’m no expert on Photoshop; don’t listen to me.
Taking advantage of the D800’s (or any modern high-end Nikon’s) dynamic range capabilities requires shooting in the RAW format (thus the huge file sizes), and Lightroom handles the RAW files fabulously.
In Lightroom: On virtually every image, I add a a little clarity and vibrance. I bring up the shadows a little, but pull back the blacks to keep that from washing things out. I at least consider whether it would be improved by cropping, by exposure adjustment, and by tweaking white balance. I use the brushes a LOT — hopefully in subtle ways to adjust (mostly) the balance of lighting among the various elements of the image.
I’m not one of those people who think it’s impermissible to crop an image. I don’t even understand that logic. “Logic,” I should say. If you don’t at least consider whether a crop (or any other adjustment) will make your image better, you’re just being lazy (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and you’re missing an opportunity to improve your output. On the other hand, I don’t like extreme HDR stuff or very dramatic processing — I’m not morally opposed to it, but I usually don’t like the artificial look. I use processing mostly to make things look MORE realistic — more like my eyes saw them or at least more like my brain remembers them. Admittedly, sometimes I use more extensive processing just to salvage whatever image I can from a situation that was otherwise difficult or impossible to shoot.
The D800s are full-frame Nikon “FX” cameras. I’ve tried Nikon’s famous professional f2.8 trio (14-24, 24-70, and 70-200mm), but they are not what I usually shoot. I own the 70-200mm, but use it for about 2% of my photography.
Two lenses carry most of my load: Nikon’s 16-35mm f4, and the 24-120mm f4 together make up at least 90% of my images. Each is smaller than — and has a broader zoom range than — its f2.8 counterpart. Importantly: The f4 lenses have Nikon’s VR image stabilization feature. It works great. I can shoot handheld and can usually get sharp images (of non-moving subjects) at 1/4 to 1/15 second. (See above re: hating tripods). This is better than the one stop of aperture you get from those f2.8 lenses — and the f4s are cheaper! (Note that if my camera is on a tripod or if the subject is moving, this advantage fades and the f 2.8s would have been better.
I have the 24mm 1.4 and the 50mm 1.4. I covet the 85mm 1.4, too, but haven’t pulled the trigger on it because it’s expensive and my camera bag is already literally full. They’re mostly for very low light and non-action subjects, though the super-shallow depth of field comes in handy and looks great (again: something the tiny lens on your iPhone cannot begin to duplicate).
I usually hate using flash. I hate it because it’s tough to get natural-looking images; I hate it because it’s physically awkward when attached to the camera; I hate it because people are often put off by blinding flashes of light in their face. Sometimes, though, it’s the only way to get any image at all. When I do use it (<5% of the time), I have a handful of SB910/900s. They do some pretty amazing tricks using the Commander feature. If you must use flash, try desperately to bounce it off something or to have it off the camera and/or to have some sort of diffuser. THIS IS IMPORTANT: If at all possible, set your exposure so that at least some (maybe “most”) of the light making the image is natural, ambient light. Flash as a subtle supplement can be great; flash (especially a single flash mounted on the camera) as the sole or primary light source usually looks like crap.